Critical thinking helps cut through blarney in campaigns

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As a reference librarian with 30 years of experience working at the college level, Jerry Zremski’s article on congressional candidate Max Della Pia’s partially plagiarized website did not surprise or shock me. A young college-age volunteer most likely appropriated the pages and also probably was unaware that he or she did anything unethical.

In “My Word,” a book by a University of Notre Dame professor, Susan Blum reported that 68 percent of college students owned up to “cutting and pasting material from the internet without citation.” When I taught classes in academic integrity, I discovered that many students truly believed that copying stuff off the internet was fine.

I was pleased the Della Pia campaign manager assumed responsibility for the plagiarism and kept the volunteer’s name private. He/she, as well as the campaign, learned a hard lesson. Still, as a firm believer in teaching students critical thinking, the story made me think about truth and veracity in political campaigns in general. I urge all my fellow voters to view the campaign material issued by all candidates with a grain of salt and to heed the following rules.

1. Consider the source carefully. Campaign websites, press releases, etc., are designed to advance the candidate they promote. Rep. Tom Reed, for example, says he is committed to saving Social Security, although he has voted to cut the taxes that fund it. Neither statement can be labeled as false, although they seem contradictory. Bipartisan groups like the League of Women Voters do a stellar job of presenting the unvarnished votes and views of candidates. Become familiar with its website.

2. Politicians (like most of us) exaggerate and even lie. Never assume that a public figure, his or her spokesman or a commentator is completely honest. If something a politician says seems outrageous, check it out on PolitiFact, the website that won a Pulitzer Prize for pointing out political mistruths, lies and exaggerations. PolitiFact has skewered politicians ranging from President Trump to Barack Obama.

3. Consult more than one source. More and more voters live in information silos where only one point of view predominates. Neither Fox News nor MSNBC are without bias. Serious voters welcome diverse points of view. Read a local source like The Buffalo News, and take a look at Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, the National Review or Talking Points Memo. Expand your news world to include diverse opinions.

Finley Peter Dunne wrote that “politics ain’t bean-bag” over 100 years ago. What his fictional Mr. Dooley said remains true. Like many voters in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, I expect a spirited, hard race between Reed and Tracy Mitrano, who beat Della Pia in the Democratic primary. As for the truth, I will, as I told my students, be consulting multiple sources.

Ann Sullivan worked as a reference librarian at Tompkins Cortland Community College for 30 years until she retired.

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